Trade union

How immediate upper level unions work in other countries and some observation in Viet Nam

By Dr Chang Hee Lee, senior industrial relations specialist and ILO Viet Nam Director

Comment | 14 February 2019
Grassroots trade unions are the core union unit which are directly in touch with workers and interact with employers for improving wages and working conditions and protecting workers’ rights. But the roles of immediate upper level unions are as important as grassroots unions.

There are many different forms and models of trade unions in the world. There can be enterprise unions composed of employees of the same enterprises, occupational unions which are unions of same occupations or crafts across different enterprises (such as carpenters’ unions, electricians’ unions, for example), general unions which is composed of any types of workers in any industry in the same locality, or sectoral unions composed of all types of workers across different enterprises in the same economic sector (such as education workers unions, metal workers unions, financial sector unions). Different forms of unions can co-exist in one country.

Occupational unions are rare these days. In recent years, there are re-emergence of general unions which tend to organize and protect workers with non-standard forms of employment in SMEs and informal economy whose number is growing in many countries. The Viet Nam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) needs to develop nationwide strategies to organize and represent workers in small and micro enterprises.

Whatever forms trade unions take, there are three common functions of trade unions across different countries and continents. The first and most important function of any trade union is representation of workers and negotiation of collective agreements. The second function is to influence laws and policies affecting workers and union members by actively participating in social dialogue at national, sectoral and regional levels. Third function is providing services and some welfare benefits to union members.

There are countries such as Korea, China, US where enterprise based union and collective bargaining is dominant, while sector/industry based union and collective bargaining is dominant in most continental European countries such as Germany, Sweden and others.

Even in a country where enterprise based union and collective bargaining is prevailing mode, immediate upper level unions (IUTU) play very important roles to support workers and grassroots unions. Key functions of IUTU include 1) organizing workers in non-union enterprises, 2) educating and training of workers for effective representation of workers and collective bargaining, 3) coordinating and supporting collective bargaining across enterprises under IUTU’s jurisdiction, 4) advocacy and communication of unions’ policies to union members, and 5) influencing government policies for favourable conditions for workers.

Histories of trade unions show that upper level unions are ‘created’ on the basis of ‘association” of unions at grassroots level that have been established by workers themselves. As such, most important roles of IUTU are helping workers to organize unions at workplaces where there is no union. Economic zone/industrial zone/export processing zone unions (hereafter IZ unions) should make every effort to create direct link with workers, support not only leadership of grassroots union but also group leaders at the workplace. One of key problems with grassroots unions in Viet Nam is that many of them are dominated by management. How to gradually transform grassroots unions as union of workers, free from management interference and dominance. After all, trade unions are organization of, for and by workers, and union rights are workers’ rights.

As a part of three major breakthrough adopted at the 12th National Congress of VGCL, VGCL should consider some innovations for IZ unions. Individual IZ union does not have either adequate human resources nor ‘sectoral foundation’ to perform key roles of IUTU as described above. To overcome the difficulties, IZ union may establish working groups within each IZ union, composed of leaders and group leaders of grassroots unions, focusing on collective bargaining in specific sectors (such as food processing, garment, for example). Also IZ unions in neighboring provinces may develop collaboration arrangement under which IZ union of A province can be the focal point of sector A (for example, food processing) for IZ unions of A, B. C and D in neighboring provinces, while IZ union of B province can be the focal point of sector B (say, garment) for IZ unions of A, B. C and D. This way it can increase effectiveness of work of IZ union under the constraints of manpower of each IZ union, while developing gradually sector structure of trade unions in Viet Nam. In this respect, groups of IZ union may also consider gradually forming committees of workers in the same sector across different IZs.

VGCL faces challenges of new workers’ organizations once the revised Labour Code is adopted. VGCL has a long and proud history, with large membership and financial resources. However it is only when VGCL becomes effective organization of workers, VGCL will become even stronger champion of Vietnamese working class. In this respect, IZ unions occupy very unique position in VGCL structure, as their roles are geared more towards representation and collective bargaining than other ‘political and social’ functions, and they are in direct touch with workers and grassroots unions. This is where key breakthrough, as adopted at 12th VGCL National Congress, should take place, which will ensure continuing leadership of VGCL among Vietnamese workers.